Eyeing the future

Spangler and Parry from Sony's EyeToy group discuss casual gaming's unsung hero

You could be forgiven for thinking that it was Nintendo and Harmonix who took the lead in revolutionising the casual gaming market through peripherals and novel control mechanics in the last couple of years. But that would be to ignore the quiet success of Sony's EyeToy for PlayStation 2, which in five years has built up an impressive installed base of 10.5 million units in PAL territories alone.

Those EyeToys are largely used to play in-house software, namely the Play series of games created by Sony's London studio. This month, Sony releases EyeToy Play: Hero and EyeToy Play: PomPom Party. These sword-fighting and cheerleading games are the first to use peripherals and the camera's colour-tracking ability for more precise motion detection - and, in Hero's case, the ability to take the player off-screen and present the action from a first-person perspective. London studio is also working on its first PS3 title, EyePet, revealed at this year's Games Convention. sat down with Sandy Spangler and Mark Parry, game designers for the EyeToy group at London studio, at the GameCity festival in Nottingham to discuss the present, past and future of the device - and the competition presented by Microsoft's You're in the Movies.

Q: These are the first titles you've produced that are entirely focused on the EyeToy's colour-tracking ability. Have you ever used it before?

Mark Parry: This is the first time we've introduced it as a gameplay element. It's very important to us as a studio to keep innovating. PlayStation 2's been out for eight years now, and people say it's old hat, why aren't you just doing PS3 stuff? What people don't realise is that there are ten and a half million EyeToy cameras out there.

Sandy Spangler: And that's just the install base in Europe only. And they love us in Australia.

Mark Parry: People only see what's around them in the UK, but EyeToy is particularly big in Germany and Australia and Spain.

Q: What are the advantages of using EyeToy, versus a motion-tracking device such as the Wii remote?

Sandy Spangler: It's more intuitive, it's very clear, as opposed to trying to figure out how to... use the Wii remote in ways that maybe naturally don't make sense - you wave it a lot to do activities where you wouldn't be waving in real life. Whereas what we always try and do with our games is make a direct correlation between the motion that you're doing and the action on screen, the effect you're having on the game.

Also there's the aspect of the camera that you can see yourself in the game, you can take pictures of the player playing the game, you can map people faces onto things and all those lovely things you can do with a camera that you can't do with a motion sensor.

But [the Wii] has also been great because now there's that much more interest in casual gaming and other ways to interface with games. I think it's just great, it's just making that many more people out there who maybe would never have thought about buying a videogame system or playing videogames - suddenly they're interested. That's expanding the market, that's always good.

Q: Do you think there's room to develop less casual experiences based around the EyeToy interface?

Sandy Spangler: I think definitely on the PlayStation Eye. I'm not sure how much more developing we're going to be doing for PlayStation2, it's still up in the air right now. But certainly because the user-base for PlayStation 3 is less casual, there's definitely scope for that. I'm sure we'll always keep our casual focus and never forget about those players. In the London studio, we're doing EyePet.

Sandy Spangler: The technology involved in that... It really does push the boundaries. The best way to describe it is that it really does have a magical feel. Things that people wouldn't even have considered would be possible. There's one thing that you see in the video where you draw a picture of a car. You then show it to the camera - your picture is then drawn by your pet, but then after that it comes to life as a 3D object. And then after that, you can control the 3D object with the controller. So you draw a car, the car then turns into a 3D car, you then drive that around and chase your pet. And it's got Havok physics applied to it so that means the wheels come off it and things like that. It's very amazing.

Q: There's a lot of high-end technology involved in casual gaming interfaces like EyeToy - but perhaps people don't realise it because of the simple nature of the games. Does that frustrate you?

Mark Parry: MP: Not so much, I think it's better that people sort of don't even realise. It's important for us for them to just use it as they would expect.

Sandy Spangler: Yeah, with a casual gamer you just want it to be invisible, you want them to go 'this is cool' and not have an awareness. I think anybody who has any awareness of videogame development would see what we're doing on screen with EyePet and just go, 'holy crap, are you actually doing what I think you're doing'?

Mark Parry: We're working on stuff past EyePet at the moment and we're continually pushing things. It's trying to get a balance of offering something new and unique in terms of technology but also an enjoyable experience. We spend more of our time ensuring that the experiences are fun and satisfying to play.

Q: You say that you don't know if you're going to continue supporting PS2 EyeToy past this year...

Sandy Spangler: We're not writing it off, because ten and a half million cameras is nothing to sneeze at.

Mark Parry: We certainly know that there's PlayStation Eye stuff being developed, but we personally are unaware of what the decisions regarding PS2's EyeToy camera. It could well be that there's more.

Q: It's odd that you're exploiting the EyeToy's colour-recognition so late in its life-cycle. Do you feel that perhaps this should have been explored earlier?

Mark Parry: It's two things - one is getting the technology in a robust state, and it's taken time to do that. Getting it up and working satisfactorily is one thing, but making sure it's robust is another. A lot of people don't realise the time-frame. These are the quickest games we have ever produced. This time last year, initial concepts hadn't even been discussed. It's been around about 11 months, and we've worked on Hero and Pom-Pom simultaneously with two external developers.

Another thing with colour-tracking, you have to involve peripherals as well, and a decision's been made to create peripherals, market them and sell them, and it's not something that as a studio we were ready to do in years gone by.

Sandy Spangler: One of the unique selling points of the camera was that it's just you and the camera - you don't need any gloves or controller or anything. Now that it's been out there for a while, that's softened.

Q: Have you had to put more resources, proportionally, into technical R&D than in regular games development?

Sandy Spangler: Oh yes, absolutely. We have our own R&D department, really, on our floor. They do get farmed out for various projects but we keep them very busy. They're constantly researching the latest developments in the industry, reading research papers from Universities on human-camera interface and different ways to use it, different ways to improve on existing technology. We get University students in and use them as interns and learn from them.

It's a great aspect of working for Sony, that they're genuinely interested in the future, what's coming up next and how can we innovate with every step.

Q: Do you work with third-parties at all, offer them any advice? There doesn't seem to be much third-party software for EyeToy.

Sandy Spangler: There's been stuff in the past, and we have tried to offer direction when people ask for it because if you've never made a camera-interface game before, you're going to make the exact same mistakes that we were making five years ago. I can give you a long list off the top of my head of things to never do. There was a Bob the Builder...

Mark Parry: Did that actually come out?

Sandy Spangler: Yes! There was a Thomas the Tank Engine... I can't even... it was an appalling game. We did not approve that, we were not involved in that. They sent us a demo, we tested it, my feedback was like three pages of "oh my gosh, this is a problem, this is a problem, this is a problem". A lot of times with kids' games, people think it's so easy they can just throw something together with a very small team over three months.

Q: Microsoft's You're In the Movies is its first full-blown camera-driven title, and your first real competitor. What do you make of what you've seen?

Sandy Spangler: It's surprising - the camera came out a while ago and they came out with the one download game, Totem Ball, and then that was it. I think that [with You're In the Movies] they're probably going to have some technical difficulties to wrestle with. They're using some technical elements that are not reliable, at least not according to our experience. They're using background subtraction to put you in the movie, and it's not very robust, that's why we haven't done it in any of our games. If the white shifts in the room or something, it can stop working. Good luck to them.

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